The not-yet-open VegCo Market in Phoenix, Ariz., aims to take on nearly every challenge facing natural retail today: stock non-GMO; make natural and organic food affordable; source locally; provide food in a food desert; help customers live more sustainably; and meet the growing demand for plant-based diets.
And that's all before Heather Francois, founder and CEO, has opened the doors.
Francois, a vegetarian all her life and now vegan, woke up one morning and had a vision of VegCo, a large supermarket that was completely plant-based with a membership model a la Costco. The market will also have a deli, bakery, in-store cooking classes and gardening and lifestyle courses that are open to the public.
Although the market will be 100% vegan, Francois is opting for the term "100% plant-based" in order to attract a broad clientele—from those who are already vegan to those flirting with the idea.
But the market isn't focused first on plants—that's just a byproduct of the larger vision: sustainability. "I don't think it's possible to live the diet that we have in the United States and call it sustainable," said Francois.
The vision and the funding
The idea of a fully plant-based grocery has been difficult to fund, even though the city's downtown business division supports the idea. Francois, who has 12 years of experience in the financial sector, knew it would be, likely because the business is a pioneer.
"I've done a worldwide Internet tour searching for a compatible business," she said. "There are some smaller scale supermarkets that are vegan, but on a large scale, like what we're trying to do, it simply doesn't exist."
The market has a location in a food desert that's easily accessible by urban and suburban travelers, but its funding from a capital acquisition firm recently fell through. Francois is turning to IndieGoGo to raise the $250,000 needed to open for business. Well-known vegan chef Jason Wyrick is coming on board as the company's chief operating officer, and Francois hopes the networks she and her partners have will bring in the capital they need.
Why a membership model?
Local distribution is lacking in Phoenix, like many areas around the country, so grocers rely upon huge distribution chains that don't take small farmers into consideration, said Francois. VegCo will work directly with farmers to provide a variety of produce for the market in an economical, efficient way that's driven by simple supply and demand.
"Our whole food distribution system right now is completely contrary to logic," said Francois. "In Arizona, we can grow just about year round, and yet if you walk into any of our supermarkets almost everything is imported. We grow oranges here without even having to try. In the supermarket, they're all imported from California."
This is the reason why Francois has chosen a membership model. "Balancing supply and demand is a huge key to the success of this business," she said. Gauging accurate demand (number of shoppers) will help VegCo keep prices down because farmers will know exactly how much produce to grow and sell. Plus, the hope is that produce will be fresher and less will go to waste.
"I've run multiple financial models, and it's absolutely possible to have the highest quality, freshest foods and offer them at prices people can afford to pay," said Francois. "That's been one of my biggest goals. It doesn't cost a fortune to eat naturally grown foods. You shouldn't have to buy genetically modified foods in order to save money. It's all a matter of how a retailer chooses to operate the business."
Merchandising a plant-based store
In addition to being 100% plant-based, the market will also stock 100% non-GMO and organic foods. Francois wants to carry a wide variety of plant foods, so if something isn't attainable locally, but it's still plant-based and not genetically modified, she will import it.
"We are absolutely committed to selling non-GMO," Francois said. "I have a very careful screening process in place. If the ingredients don't state that they use non-GMO, then I ask [the producer] to provide me with a statement."
The store will feature a large bulk section, a gluten-free section and "we will have extraordinary careful segregation and prominent marking of foods that are allergenic," said Francois, such as peanuts and other nuts.
It's undetermined for now when VegCo will open, but with nearly 2,000 likes on its Facebook page and vegans across the country clamoring for this business model, it may be only a matter of time before more VegCo-like models pop up across the country.
"What I would like to do is work with other communities and build VegCo Markets to specifically serve their community," said Francois. "For example, If we do one in Michigan, we'd emphasize what they grow there—more a partnership, not a franchise."
Square feet: 12,000
SKUs: TBD, several thousand
Employees: From 18 to 31 in its final, full phase of business